Yearly Archive: 2005

J.N. Williamson Biography and Appreciation

Author/editor J.N. “Jerry” Williamson died this past Thursday. He was a friend of mine, a kind man and an excellent writer whose work has largely fallen out of print. If you find the following books, I encourage you to look past the garish 80s horror covers and titles that he so often got stuck with and read them:

The following biography and appreciation were written by John Maclay; they may be freely reprinted/reposted.


J.N. Williamson Biographical Facts

J.N. Williamson was born April 17, 1932, Indianapolis, IN

Graduated Shortridge High School, where he co-edited the school’s daily paper with later writer Dan Simmons and later U.S. Senator Richard Lugar. Studied journalism at Butler University and served in the U.S. Army.

Sang in the style of Frank Sinatra professionally with his parents’ band and for Broadway-style musicals at Starlight Musicals in Indianapolis, where he met his wife of many years, Mary

The father of two sons, Scott and John, stepfather of four children, and grandfather of many.

An avid I.U. and Indiana Pacers basketball and Indiana Colts’ football fan

A precocious Sherlockian, he published his first book, The Illustrious Client’s Case Book, while still in his teens

Worked in sales management and as an astrologer, and sold short stories intermittently

Published his first novel, The Ritual, in 1979 at the age of 47, and went on to sell 31 more in the next 15 years

Editor of the acclaimed Masques horror anthology series and other books

Recipient of the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003

Died December 8, 2005, Noblesville, IN


J. N. Williamson: An Appreciation

I first met Jerry Williamson in the fall of 1982. At that time, just since 1979, he’d sold 16 horror novels, and was to go on in the decade to double that total. He and Stephen King were the most prolific and excellent horror novelists of the 1980s, so it was only fitting that they received the Horror Writers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award together in 2003.

As a short story and nonfiction writer, and as an editor, Jerry also excelled. He edited and I published the first Masques horror anthology in 1984, to be followed by three more volumes (two of which I published) in 1987, 1989, and 1991. And Williamson’s encouragement of new writers in the genre is well known. In fact, he arranged my own first short story publication in 1983.

Jerry never let financial and physical ills deter him, and was still working on new projects when he passed on. He remained bright, and a writer’s writer, to the end. He was an inspiration to so many, including myself, not to mention a warm and dear friend.

There’s much more to say, of course, but I’ll conclude by quoting from Stephen Vincent Benet’s reaction to the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald (a writer Williamson loved): “You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This . . . may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.”

So it is with you, Jerry. We love you, we honor you, and your presence on this earth will be sorely missed. Rest in the Lord.

Movie Review: God Is Alone

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

God is Alone is a 2004 indie film written and directed by Jason Torrey. It’s about a young man named William who, along with his deaf sister Amy, endures a great deal of abuse from their father. After William loses his job, he sees a girl abandoning a baby in a dumpster; he tries to help the baby, and the film chronicles the disaster that follows. On a symbolic level, the film is basically an update of the story of the birth of Christ.

I thought that Monique Farrar, the actress who played Amy, was superb–I don’t recall the last time I saw a face so naturally and deeply, deeply sad; of all the actors in the film, she was the only one who I felt wasn’t “acting”–she was natural and effortless and heartbreaking as hell.

Other reviewers have criticized the movie for having far too many scenes of William walking around. I agree (though I can undertand, to an extent, why Torrey chose to do this), but even if I hadn’t liked it overall, I would still recommend that people watch it for the extraordinary “coffee-making” scene that comes about 2/3 of the way through.

The coffee scene accomplishes everything that good film storytelling should accomplish; it adds depth to the character, it has real poignancy, it’s nerve-wracking as hell in context, and ultimately incredibly sad.

The entire sequence, from the time her father pours the coffee on the table right up until Amy falls asleep in her bedroom is–in my opinion–perfect. No flashy camera work, nothing terribly symbolic, just one person in a great deal of quiet pain and fear trying to keep herself from being further abused, then retreating into memories of the past in order to make coping with the present more endurable.

There’s a lot of subtle pain and terror in that sequence, and though the rest of the film doesn’t measure up to these 8 or 9 extraordinary minutes, that they exist at all is proof enough of the director’s talent for me.

If you can get past some of the over-long strolls, a handful of visual self-indulgences, and some of the heavy-handed religious symbolism (that Amy was dressed in white, white, white all the time got on my nerves in short order) this is very worthwhile–though flawed–piece of filmmaking. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to be exactly what it wants to be: it’s the work of a single vision, so it’s understandable that that vision might have gotten a little tunnel-visioned at times.

There is a scene in the movie that–as far as I can tell–serves no other purpose (speaking here from a narrative point) than for the director and his wife to put their baby daughter on-screen. But you know what? I’m a sucker for babies. The little girl is adorable, a natural for the screen if I ever saw one. Unfortunately–for the scene in question–you can’t look at anyone or anything else once the baby comes on. It’s not that she makes noise or draws attention to herself, it’s just that she’s so darned cute you don’t really care about anything else.

But I want to re-emphasize something: despite my reservations about it, this is a very worthwhile film, one that shows its director as having serious intent and a talent to watch.

God is Alone is 104 minutes long and is intended for mature teens and adults.


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

Movie Review: The Village

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village is about the people of Covington, an isolated late-1800s era village somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania. The villagers have an uneasy truce between themselves and monstrous creatures who live in the woods surrounding their village. Travel is prohibited; as the movie opens, one of the village’s elders has just lost his only son to a disease that could have been cured had they been able to travel to nearby towns to get medicines.

The plot thickens as the creatures invade the village at night and leave red slashes on doors and mutilated animals. After her beloved is gravely wounded, a blind girl decides she must brave the woods to get medical supplies.

Signs was an allegory about faith; this movie is about fear. The villagers wear the color of caution and cowardice.

The good things about this movie are that it is beautifully photographed and wonderfully acted, and the micro-writing of the script is very good. There are a number of great scenes, but I think the best is between Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) and Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) on a porch.

The problem — and it’s a big one, folks — is that The Village should have never been approached as a horror/suspense movie in the first place. It is not a scary movie because it never should have been a scary movie. Shyamalan has bought into his own PR as the “New Master Of Suspense”. This movie — and bear in mind I’ve liked all his other films — was hamstrung by bad storytelling. As a result, it’s the weakest of the films he’s written and directed so far.

I’ve seen the central idea of The Village done in at least two old Twilight Zone< episodes, and I can’t help but think that a writer like Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont or Richard Matheson would have done The Village right and told it as a sociological drama.

Another film similar to this was done many years ago; it’s a wonderful Alan Bates film entitled King of Hearts. If you enjoyed The Village but left the theater feeling dissatisfied with the story as I did, you might try to find King of Hearts as a rental.

Furthermore, several people have mentioned to me that the plot of The Village is quite similar to a children’s novel entitled Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix. Haddix’s novel includes not only the basic idea of the village, but the village elders also have black boxes in their homes.

Derivative or not, The Village has a good story at its core — but it took the movie over an hour to finally get around to telling it. The “twist” should have been revealed in the first thirty minutes — as it is, it’s broadcast enough that my wife and I guessed it pretty early on, and I know of at least one person who guessed it from simply watching the trailer. It could have been a really chilling and poignant drama had it been written and directed by someone who wasn’t bent on making a suspense movie with a twist at the end.

And unfortunately although the story looks and sounds great, Shyamalan blew every chance he had to tell this story the way it should have been told.

Discussion (Spoilers Follow)

The movie does have an interesting political subtext, and many viewers (including myself) are interpreting it as a critique of the Bush Administration’s handling of the war on terror: “If you won’t fear the outside world so that we can control you with fear, we will create monsters to frighten you into meek submission.”

Political allegories aside, the story was actually told backwards: this would have been a much more compelling movie had it begun with all of these broken people in the counselling center deciding they’d had enough of society’s violence, and then following them as they took steps to make the life in the village and raise their children to be fearful of the outside world, and ending with the creation of “the monsters.”

There was an outright plot hole in this one, too (aside from the literal plot hole in the woods). Why was the monster suit hidden in the floorboards of the quiet room where Noah would have access to it? The scene before had led us viewers to believe all the suits were in the forbidden shed. And how would Ivy know what the claw of one of the monsters would feel like, since she’s never seen one? Sloppy.

And I found Noah’s character to be a bit aggravating; I’m faulting the script rather than Adrien Brody’s acting, which was fine as usual. Noah giggles at the sounds from the forest at the beginning because he know’s what’s going on — it seems like he’s the embodiment of the director laughing at us because we don’t know what’s going on yet. I gathered that Noah was responsible for all the animal mutilations as well, but it seems impossible he could do so many of the animals later on, and it’s never really clarified. Another plot hole.

This movie’s horror trappings were ultimately unnecessary. The tale was told with the emphasis on the wrong elements.

The lesson: never buy into your own PR, lest you take a good story and purposefully mangle it so that it better suits your “reputation.”

Movie Information

Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 108 minutes
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Score: James Newton Howard
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins (who also shot O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Sid and Nancy)
Cast:

Bryce Dallas Howard: Ivy Walker
Joaquin Phoenix: Lucius Hunt
Adrien Brody: Noah Percy
William Hurt: Edward Walker
Sigourney Weaver: Alice Hunt
Brendan Gleeson: August Nicholson
Cherry Jones: Mrs. Clack


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

Movie Review: The Punisher

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

I watched this 2004 movie last night and much to my surprise, I liked it. I’m not sure that this was really a good movie (though I can say without hesitation that the camera work — done by the talented Conrad W. Hall — and pacing of the action sequences are excellent) but I sure had a good time watching it.

It put me in mind of a Bogart movie from 1953 called Beat the Devil — a movie that bombed and was panned by critics upon its initial release because everyone thought it was being serious; the ensuing decades have revealed that the movie is, in fact, a subtly tongue-in-cheek comedy whose wit and cleverness was a bit ahead of its time.

I think that’s why The Punisher tanked; it’s not a serious movie, despite the way it was advertised (and one wince-inducing torture sequence). I found this to be a wild entertaining, tongue-in-cheek comic book/action movie satire with a couple of very sly performances from Tom Jane and John Travolta.

And if you think I’m off-base about the tongue-in-cheek aspect, go back and watch the dinner-with-the-neighbors sequence again; Jane does some hysterically subtle stuff. And consider the diner sequence when guitar-strumming Johnny-Cash-as-psychopathic-assassin Harry Heck confronts Castle. And review the time the Russian assassin shows up–looking like Gorgeous George, complete with the Popeye red-striped shirt–you’ll have no choice but to realize that this thing was not meant to be taken seriously; it’s all tongue-in-cheek, and just overdone enough to be winkingly funny; it’s meant to be a joke, and one that the viewer is in on.

Seriously; if one were to view this as a movie with serious intentions, it would be a disaster; watch it as a sly action dark comedy, and it’s a whole new experience.

The basic plot is pretty simple: after his family is murdered by gangsters, Frank Castle goes on a one-man mission to kill the killers. “This is not revenge,” Castle says. “This is punishment.” He sets up his base of operations in a seedy apartment building where his oddball neighbors take an interest in him.

Comic book purists may of course be dismayed by the liberties the movie takes with the Frank Castle canon. Jane’s Castle is a Federal undercover agent whose entire extended family is murdered by Howard Saint’s hitmen at a reunion in Puerto Rico. Whereas in the original comic Castle had nothing to do with the drug lords prior to his immediate family’s murder, in this movie Saint decrees the mass slaughter in revenge for his son’s death during a drug sting orchestrated by Castle. And the subsequent action takes place in Florida instead of New York City. Furthermore, instead of being a loner, Castle becomes involved with his neighbors despite his own intentions.

Movie Information

Rating: R
Release Year: 2004
Running Time: 124 minutes
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Writer: Jonathan Hensleigh and Michael France, based on the works of the various writers for the Marvel comic
Cinematographer: Conrad W. Hall (who also shot Fight Club and American Beauty)
Cast:

Russell Andrews — Jimmy Weeks
Omar Avila — Joe Toro
James Carpinello — Bobby Saint/John Saint
Mark Collie — Harry Heck
Ben Foster — Spacker Dave
Laura Harring — Livia Saint
Thomas Jane — Frank Castle (as Tom Jane)
Kevin Nash — The Russian
Will Patton — Quentin Glass
John Pinette — Bumpo
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos — Joan
Roy Scheider — Frank Castle, Sr.
Hank Stone — Cutter
John Travolta — Howard Saint


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.